Suicide has quietly become an epidemic among the nation’s police, ranking as the No. 1 cause of officer deaths this year. Frustrated police advocates and mental health experts warn that President Biden has not only ignored the crisis but also exacerbated it with anti-police rhetoric.
Once a loyal ally to law enforcement during his more than 30 years in the Senate, Mr. Biden has tread a fine line when it comes to policing. He has pushed back against the left’s defund-the-police movement but has made few public comments supporting the police, fearful of crossing the Democratic Party’s progressive base and Black voters.
“The administration is not addressing police suicides, but in many ways, they are contributing to the stress, uncertainty and mental health issues that a lot of American law enforcement officers feel,” said Betsy Brantner Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Police Association.
As president, Mr. Biden has signed legislation to reduce and prevent suicide among frontline health care workers, launched a military and veteran suicide prevention strategy, and advocated mental health services for transgender teens.
But administration officials have remained largely mum on law enforcement suicides outside of mourning the deaths of the four officers who died by suicide after responding to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
At a May event urging cities to invest more funds in local police, Mr. Biden discussed the need for mental health services for offenders reentering society, but not officers.
A Justice Department spokesperson disputed that the administration has been silent on law enforcement suicides, saying Attorney General Merrick Garland addressed the issue at the International Association of Chiefs of Police symposium in March.
During his remarks, Mr. Garland noted that the Justice Department’s COPS Office this year will issue $7 million in grants to prevent suicide and expand mental health services for law enforcement. However, most of the money had been allocated under the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act, a 2018 measure signed into law by then-President Trump.
The spokesperson said the department has not increased the level of funding for fiscal 2023, but it has expanded the training and technical assistance it provides to law enforcement for mental wellness. This year the department added a consolidated list of officer safety and wellness resources to its website.
Mr. Garland also touted a $2 million grant to convene a national consortium on preventing law enforcement suicides. Those funds were approved by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2019.
“If you acknowledge there is a problem, you have to do something, so I think there is a hesitation to acknowledge there is a problem in this culture of bashing police,” said Cherylynn Lee, a police psychologist. “How can you be outspoken about officers being malicious and have a parallel narrative about how they stand up for good and lose a lot on their mission to protect us?”
This year, 64 law enforcement officers in the United States have died by suicide — an average of more than 10 per month — according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that keeps such statistics.
Experts say the number is likely higher. Blue H.E.L.P.’s data is based on reports from local police departments. Those departments are hesitant to provide accurate numbers because of the stigma attached to suicide and it isn’t considered a line-of-duty death so families of officers who took their own lives can’t get benefits.
The 64 reported suicides account for 32% of the 197 officer deaths this year, higher than any category of line-of-duty deaths.
This year 34 officers have been killed by gunfire, most of them while making an arrest, 58 officers died of COVID-19, and another 30 died in traffic incidents.
In 2021, suicide accounted for about 20% of all known police officer deaths.
The rise in officer suicides comes as the national suicide rate declined by 3% in 2021, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mental health advocates say the suicide surge stems from the shame and stigma associated with seeking help in a profession that prides itself on mental and physical toughness, coupled with the growing stress of being a cop amid the anti-police climate in America.
“I’ve been involved in law enforcement since 1976 and this is the worst I’ve seen it,” Ms. Brantner Smith said.
There is plenty the Biden administration can do to curb law enforcement suicides, according to experts.
The first thing, they said, would be to knock off the comments critical of law enforcement.
In a statement meant to honor officers during Police Week last year, Mr. Biden bashed officers for creating “a deep sense of distrust” between law enforcement and communities of color.
“This year, we also recognize that in many of our communities, especially Black and brown communities, there is a deep sense of distrust towards law enforcement; a distrust that has been exacerbated by the recent deaths of several Black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement,” said the statement that was meant to recognize officers who had fallen in the line of duty.
Mr. Biden vowed last year that two U.S. Border Patrol agents falsely accused of “whipping” Haitian migrants at the border “will pay” for their actions, but they were later cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.
“The biggest thing the Biden administration could do is apologize to the profession for some of the outrageous statements Joe Biden has made since the election,” Ms. Brantner Smith said. “American law enforcement feels that not only does the administration not have our back, but we are actively in the crosshairs and that wears on the mental health of the men and women on the streets trying to do their job.”
Mr. Biden also could host a day honoring law enforcement, or an event highlighting the need for officer mental health services. The White House previously announced several mental health initiatives with much fanfare, including a plan to reduce military veteran suicides.
Experts also called for an increase in funding for mental health services for law enforcement, calling for boosting Justice Department grants available to local departments for counseling and other treatment services.
Police advocates said the grants provided under the 2018 legislation are woefully insufficient and need to be supplemented with funds from the federal government. The grants available under the COPS program and Byrne program are helpful, they said, but cash-strapped departments are spending the funds on critical needs such as replacing damaged vehicles and upgrading holding cells, leaving only a few dollars left for mental health services.
Currently, there is no legislation pending in Congress that would increase federal funding for law enforcement mental health services. While some have blamed the Biden administration, critics note that Republicans have not introduced legislation to improve police access to mental health services.
“The resources that exist are helpful but they are not enough,” said Ms. Lee, the police psychologist. “It is a political danger zone to be pro-police.”
She called for legislation that would mandate police officers have an annual session with a therapist and require officers involved in critical incidents to attend a debrief with officials and counselors. Congress can implement such rules only for federal officers, but local departments usually follow suit.
Currently, only one bill in Congress addresses the higher suicide rates for first responders. The Public Safety Officer Support Act would enable families of officers who died by suicide to be eligible for benefits.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Democrat, and John Cornyn, Texas Republican, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee. It will now move to the full floor for the vote.
An aide to Mr. Cornyn said the president could have done more to help the bill advance more swiftly.
“After their disastrous defund-the-police agenda backfired, the Biden administration continues to find new ways to demonize and neglect our brave law enforcement,” the aide said.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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